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Creativity Requires Taking Risks

A new study from an international team of researchers published in Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts shows that risk-taking is an important part of creativity. The research points to a specific kind of risk-taking – the intellectual kind – that helps predict who will engage in more creative activities and who will have more significant and recognized creative achievement. For those who are not willing to take intellectual risks, even being confident that they are able to be creative may not help. In other words, some level of intellectual risk-taking is necessary for creativity.

What is intellectual risk-taking? Intellectual risk-taking is what Pablo Picasso described when he said, “I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.” It is a form of adaptive risk-taking, very different from the types associated with rashness, gambling, or unhealthy behavior (e.g., risky sexual behavior). Intellectual risk-taking refers to actions that expose a person to the possibility of failing, such as trying to learn new skills or trying out new ideas.

A team of international researchers set out to examine how intellectual risk-taking contributes to creativity. They posed three groups of questions to more than 800 adults, ages 18 to 79. First, they asked how likely they are to engage in a set of actions characteristic of intellectual risk-taking (e.g., "I like doing new things, even if I am not good at them," or "I like to learn new things even if I might make mistakes"). Next, people indicated how confident they are in their ability to be creative (e.g., "I trust my creative abilities"). Finally, people completed questions about creativity. They were asked whether in the previous year they had engaged in a list of creative activities related to writing, music, cooking, arts and crafts, sports, visual arts, performing arts, and science and engineering, as well as what they had achieved in different areas of creative work (again, from cooking to invention to the arts and sciences and from being praised by friends and family to receiving national recognition).

The results showed that intellectual risk-taking was related to both creative confidence and creative behavior. In other words, those who were willing to take intellectual risks were more likely to believe that they had the ability to be creative, were more likely to engage in creative activities on an ongoing basis, and had more creative achievements than those who were not willing to take intellectual risks. But the story becomes more interesting: Researchers explored how intellectual risk-taking and creative confidence might work together to enable creativity to happen.

Intellectual risk-taking seemed to influence how well creative confidence predicted creative behavior. Researchers identified a threshold of minimal intellectual risk-taking after which creative confidence was connected to greater creative activities and achievement. Below this threshold, even if one had creative confidence, this confidence did not necessarily result in more creative behavior.

The good news is that the threshold for intellectual risk-taking researchers identified was rather low. In other words, people don’t need to be willing to take risks all the time; rather, a measured willingness to do so could help creativity. We don’t all have to become high risk-takers to become more creative, but aim to cross a rather low threshold.

Another group of researchers examined different kinds of risk-taking. They conducted two studies with close to 500 people – both university students and other adults – and asked how likely people are to engage in five kinds of risk-taking: ethical (e.g., Taking some questionable deductions on your income tax return), financial (e.g., Investing 5% of your annual income in a very speculative stock), health and safety-related, (e.g., Driving a car without wearing a seat belt), recreational (e.g., Going down a ski run that is beyond your ability), and social (e.g., Speaking your mind about an unpopular issue in a meeting at work).

Results showed that not all kinds of risk are created equal when it comes to creativity. The only kind of risk-taking that consistently predicted creative achievement was social risk. This kind of risk overlaps with intellectual risk: Both intellectual and social risks expose a person to the possibility of failing in one’s own eyes and the eyes of others and willingness to engage with and share new ideas.

Research is converging on the importance of taking calculated risks related to one’s self-concept (e.g., risk when attempting to learn something new) or reputation (e.g., risk when exposing one’s ideas to criticism or even ridicule). Yet, most people are risk-averse. What can we do to equip ourselves to take those anxiety-provoking risks? What can we do as parents who want to support creativity in their children, as leaders at work, or simply as individuals who want to be more creative?

Eleanor Roosevelt challenged us to do something that scares us every day. That is apt advice. Something that scares us is something that exposes us to the risk of failure. We do not have to be comfortable taking these risks. Indeed, organizational behavior scholars distinguish between tolerating risks and seeking risks. We do not have to be natural risk-takers. Rather, we need to be able to bear risks, even if we are not necessarily comfortable doing so. Challenging ourselves and others around us to take small risks can move us above that minimal threshold identified in the research.

References Beghetto, R. A., Karwowski, M., & Reiter-Palmon, R. (2020). Intellectual risk-taking: A moderating link between creative confidence and creative behavior? Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity, and the Arts. Advance online publication. Tyagi, V., Hanoch, Y., Hall, S. D., Runco, M., & Denham, S. L. (2017). The risky side of creativity: Domain specific risk-taking in creative individuals. Frontiers in psychology, 8, 145. Doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2017.00145 Nicholson, N., Soane, E., Fenton‐O'Creevy, M., & Willman, P. (2005). Personality and domain‐specific risk-taking. Journal of Risk Research, 8(2), 157-176. doi:10.1080/1366987032000123856


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